Affect v. Effect

This one comes up a lot in nearly everything I edit. Quick tip:  you’ll almost always use affect as a verb and effect as a noun.

Affect means “to produce or have an effect upon; to produce a material influence upon or alteration in; to act upon so as to effect (cause or produce) a response.” (Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.)

Effect has many subtle definitions, but most often it is used to mean “an outward sign; something that inevitably follows an antecedent (as a cause or agent); an influence.”

Exceptions to the verb/noun rules. Affect, as a psychological term meaning mood or emotion, is a noun. Effect is rarely used as a verb, as the style is rather old fashioned and more formal than typically used these days, but if you use it properly, you’ll sound smart. When used as a verb, effect means “to bring about” or “make happen.” In its most common usage as a verb, affect means “having an effect or influence,” while the verb form of effect “refers to actual achievement of a final result.” (Webster’s)


  • The new tax laws will adversely affect the rich, but will have little effect on the middle class. (Affect as a verb, with effect as a noun)
  • The weather will affect our choice of activity for the weekend. (Affect as a verb)
  • The weather will have an effect on our choice of activity for the weekend. (Effect as a noun)
  • The government effected change the moment it passed health care reform; insurance companies have to cover children regardless of pre-existing conditions. (Effect as a verb)
  • Insurance companies, doctors, and patients are all affected by the changes in health care laws. (Affect as a verb)
  • The patient’s affect was cheery, but the doctor knew it was a facade. (Affect as a noun)

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Fewer v. Less

If you’ve ever been in a grocery store, you’ve seen the express line, which generally caters to shoppers with “10 items or less.” This may come as a big shock to you (or not), but 99 percent of grocery stores use improper grammar! The express line should cater to shoppers who have “10 items or fewer.”

What’s the difference? Isn’t the meaning the same? Well, to some extent, yes, in that we understand what is meant either way. Few people make a distinction between the two these days. And in a few more decades, it’s likely that the only people who will care will be editors and linguists. However, if you wish to be grammatically correct (and sound smart), you’ll keep in mind this usage rule (from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary): Less applies to non-countable things (matters of degree, value, or amount) and modifies collective nouns, mass nouns, or nouns denoting an abstract whole. Fewer applies to matters of number (quantity, or countable things) and modifies plural nouns.


  • Shoppers can use the express lane if they have 10 items or fewer. (In this case, we use fewer because we are referring to a countable number of items.)
  • My sprained ankle hurt less after I iced the area. (In this case, we use less because we are referring to the degree of pain, a non-countable thing.)

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Published in: on July 7, 2009 at 11:42 pm  Comments (1)  
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lay v. lie

Lay and lie are often incorrectly used because their meanings are so similar that people have a hard time remembering which means what. To make matters even more confusing, the past tense of lie is lay (but the past tense of lay is not lie or lied). There has been so much confusion regarding this pair of words that the dictionary (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.) has devoted an entire paragraph to the usage of lay and lie. (Note that the word lie in this case means “to recline” rather than “to tell a mistruth.”) The verb lay is used when there is a grammatical object upon which it acts, while lie is the action of the subject.

The various meanings of lay (laid, laying) fill five inches of column space in the dictionary. The most commonly used meanings, those we are addressing here, are “to put or set down,” and “to place for rest or sleep.”

Lie (lay, lain, lying) means “to recline” or “to be or to stay at rest in a horizontal position.”


  • When you get tired, lay down that shovel and lie down in the hammock for a break. (The shovel is the object of your action [you lay down the object, in this case, the shovel].  You are the subject, and you take the action verb lie.)


  • Lay those books on the desk in the living room. (The books are an object. “You” are the implied subject in this imperative sentence.)
  • She laid the baby in the bassinet. (The baby is the object.)
  • I was laying carpet in the hall when I realized I disliked the color I’d chosen. (The carpet is the object.)
  • Now I lay me down to sleep. (In this children’s prayer, the subject I is placing his body [me–the object] down to sleep, so lay is appropriate.)


  • We expect the children to lie quietly during nap time, even if they don’t sleep. (Why lie instead of lay here? Because “We” are not acting upon the children, they are a second subject rather than an object of our action.)
  • The books lie on the desk in the living room. (The books are the subject in this sentence. They are taking the action of lying on the desk.)
  • The seeing-eye dog lay at the foot of her owner’s bed while he was sleeping. (Lay is the past tense of lie. Confusing, right? The dog is the subject of this past-tense sentence.)
  • Susie has lain in the hammock every afternoon this summer. (Susie is the subject, there is no object on which she is acting.)
  • I was lying in the grass when the phone rang. (I is the subject, there is no object.)
Published in: on May 24, 2009 at 10:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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e.g. v. i.e.

People often use i.e. and e.g. as if they are interchangeable. They are similar enough that the confusion is understandable, but they do not mean the same thing, and are not interchangeable. They do have this in common though: They must both be preceded and followed by commas. (The preceding comma can be replaced by a dash or parenthesis.)

I.e. is the abbreviation for the Latin id est, which translates to that is. The term introduces something specific to which the speaker is alluding in the preceding statement. It should be preceded and followed by a comma, as if you’d actually written that is.

E.g. is the abbreviation for the Latin exempli gratia, which translates to for example. The term introduces a generic example or examples from a group of possible choices to which the preceding statement alludes. Like i.e., e.g. should be preceded and followed by a comma, as you’d use them to set off for example if you’d actually written it out.


  • I am going to a book signing by my favorite author, i.e., Anne McCaffrey. (I am going to a book signing by my favorite author, that is, Anne McCaffrey. In this case, I use i.e. because Anne McCaffrey is the specific author to whom I refer when I say “my favorite author”.)
  • I enjoy reading adventure stories, e.g., “Inca Gold”. (I enjoy reading adventure stories, for example, “Inca Gold”. In this case, I use e.g. because “Inca Gold” is an example of an adventure story I would read, rather than the only [specific] adventure story I’d read. I could replace “Inca Gold” with the title of a different adventure book without changing the meaning of the sentence.)

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Published in: on April 23, 2009 at 7:26 pm  Comments (3)  
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I’ve Launched My New Website:

I was laid off in December, and the job hunt has NOT been going so well. I have landed a few tiny jobs on Liveperson, but they take a huge commission, so I’ve decided to strike out on my own. Hopefully, I will either get enough work through my new site,, that I will no longer need to find a job, or someone will find me there and offer me a full-time job.

Published in: on March 24, 2009 at 4:44 am  Leave a Comment  
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CSU, Chico Editing Program Threatened

Statewide budget cuts are once again threatening the Certificate in Literary Editing and Publishing program at CSU, Chico. The program is amazing, and I hope the administration recognizes its value. I spent three semesters in the program as a graduate student, and learned more useful skills (i.e., those that get me hired) in those 18 months than I did in the five years I spent getting my B.A. So few schools offer editing programs, and the one at Chico is really one of the most comprehensive; I hope it survives. Because of my certification, I’ve been able to work as a textbook editor, fiction editor (my favorite), and technical writer.

I am, unfortunately, unemployed again (I’ve been laid off twice in the last 11 months–stupid economy), but I know that my certificate in editing gives me a competitive edge, and with it, I have a better chance of finding work than most people out there. 

If you love grammar, and are interested in becoming an editor, this is truly a great way to learn the ropes:


Tragic. Just tragic.


Note the missing apostrophe in the title.

Its a catastrophe for the apostrophe in Britain

LONDON – On the streets of Birmingham, the queen’s English is now the queens English.

England’s second-largest city has decided to drop apostrophes from all its street signs, saying they’re confusing and old-fashioned.

But some purists are downright possessive about the punctuation mark.

It seems that Birmingham officials have been taking a hammer to grammar for years, quietly dropping apostrophes from street signs since the 1950s. Through the decades, residents have frequently launched spirited campaigns to restore the missing punctuation to signs denoting such places as “St. Pauls Square” or “Acocks Green.”

This week, the council made it official, saying it was banning the punctuation mark from signs in a bid to end the dispute once and for all.

Councilor Martin Mullaney, who heads the city’s transport scrutiny committee, said he decided to act after yet another interminable debate into whether “Kings Heath,” a Birmingham suburb, should be rewritten with an apostrophe.

“I had to make a final decision on this,” he said Friday. “We keep debating apostrophes in meetings and we have other things to do.”

Mullaney hopes to stop public campaigns to restore the apostrophe that would tell passers-by that “Kings Heath” was once owned by the monarchy.

“Apostrophes denote possessions that are no longer accurate, and are not needed,” he said. “More importantly, they confuse people. If I want to go to a restaurant, I don’t want to have an A-level (high school diploma) in English to find it.”

But grammarians say apostrophes enrich the English language.

“They are such sweet-looking things that play a crucial role in the English language,” said Marie Clair of thePlain English Society, which campaigns for the use of simple English. “It’s always worth taking the effort to understand them, instead of ignoring them.”

Mullaney claimed apostrophes confuse GPS units, including those used by emergency services. But Jenny Hodge, a spokeswoman for satellite navigation equipment manufacturer TomTom, said most users of their systems navigate through Britain’s sometime confusing streets by entering a postal code rather than a street address.

She said that if someone preferred to use a street name — with or without an apostrophe — punctuation wouldn’t be an issue. By the time the first few letters of the street were entered, a list of matching choices would pop up and the user would choose the destination.

A test by The Associated Press backed this up. In a search for London street St. Mary’s Road, the name popped up before the apostrophe had to be entered.

There is no national body responsible for regulating place names in Britain. Its main mapping agency,Ordnance Survey, which provides data for emergency services, takes its information from local governmentsand each one is free to decide how it uses punctuation.

“If councils decide to add or drop an apostrophe to a place name, we just update our data,” said Ordnance Survey spokesman Paul Beauchamp. “We’ve never heard of any confusion arising from their existence.”

To sticklers, a missing or misplaced apostrophe can be a major offense.

British grammarians have railed for decades against storekeepers’ signs advertising the sale of “apple’s and pear’s,” or pubs offering “chip’s and pea’s.”

In her best-selling book “Eats, Shoots and Leaves,” Lynne Truss recorded her fury at the title of the Hugh Grant-Sandra Bullock comedy “Two Weeks Notice,” insisting it should be “Two Weeks’ Notice.”

“Those spineless types who talk about abolishing the apostrophe are missing the point, and the pun is very much intended,” she wrote.

Published in: on February 1, 2009 at 10:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

Who v. Whom

This is a tricky one, even for editors! There has been talk for years about whom being dropped from the language, in part because so few people actually understand how to use it. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) even says, at the entry for whom, “Observers of the language have been predicting the demise of whom from about 1870 down to the present day [one of the pronoun cases is visibly disappearing–the objective case whom–R. G. White – 1870] [whom is dying out in England, where ‘Whom did you see?’ sounds affected–Anthony Burgess – 1980]. Our evidence shows that no one–English or not–should expect whom to disappear momentarily; it shows every indication of persisting quite a while yet.” I have, in fact, actually heard more people trying to use whom in speech lately. Unfortunately, they’re only using it correctly about 50 percent of the time. 

Who is a pronoun that stands in for the subject (the person taking action) in a sentence.

Whom is also a pronoun, but it stands in for the object (the person having something done to him or her) of a verb or of a preceding or following preposition in a sentence. 


  • I wonder who is going to get married next. (In this case, there are two subjects in the sentence. I is a subject taking the action of wondering, but who is also taking action–getting married–thus we use who instead of whom.)
  • I hope he knows whom she has been kissing. (In this sentence, there are again two subjects, and she, taking action. The subject I is taking the action of hoping, while the subject she has taken the action of kissing. In this case, we use whom rather than who because the person for whom the pronoun whom is standing in is the receiver, or object, of the subject’s [she] action of kissing.)
  • To whom did you give the extra movie tickets? (In this case, whom is the object of the preposition “to”. Common prepositions: about, above, across, after, against, alongside, around, as, at, before, below, beneath, between, by, despite, down, except, for, from, in, inside, like, of, off, on, onto, opposite, plus, since, through, throughout, to, toward, underneath, until, up, with, without.)
Published in: on February 1, 2009 at 3:38 am  Comments (3)  

Whose v. Who’s

Again, this is a case of an apostrophe indicating NOT a possessive, but rather, a contraction. (If you couldn’t tell, I have a thing about the proper use of apostrophes.)

Even though it does not have an apostrophe, whose is a possessive adjective that implies ownership (it’s in the same group as his, hers, yours, and its). It is often used as an interrogative, that is, in a question. 

Who’s is the contraction of the words who and is. It is not possessive.


  • Whose purse is that? (To whom does that purse belong?)
  • I don’t care whose cookie is bigger! (I do not care who has a bigger cookie!)
  • Who’s coming to dinner? (Who is coming to dinner?)
  • I wish I could figure out who’s eating all my cookies. (I wish I could figure out who is eating all my cookies.)

Their v. They’re v. There

Many people have trouble with this one, but once you understand it, it’s quite easy to get it right.

Their is a possessive pronoun, like its, his, hers, and so on. Their indicates ownership by multiple subjects (a group of owners of the modified object). (Note that in this case of e and i together in a word, the e comes before the i.)

They’re is a contraction of the words they and are and means they are

There indicates location.


  • The children are going to the park this afternoon; they’re going to invite their grandmother to meet them there. (The children are going to the park this afternoon; they are going to invite their grandmother to meet them at that location [the park].)
Published in: on December 14, 2008 at 8:59 pm  Leave a Comment